Preaching Psalm 124

Busy week over! One of the things that kept me busy was preparing a sermon on Psalm 124 (one of the songs of the ascent) that I preached in Darrell Johnson’s Preaching and Worship class. (I also preached on Philippians 1:12-20)I was honestly not sure how it would turn out but the feedback I got was pretty positive and the suggestions and criticism were quite helpful. I think with some tweaking and working on this for a few more hours and it would be ready (?) to preach in a church. Please let me know what you think.. if you read it that is! Reproduced below is the manuscript of what I preached. I recorded myself and I will post that when I get back from Seattle. Have a great weekend!

Matt Jones
APPL 619: Preaching and Worship: Darrell Johnson
Sermon II


Help: The Beatles

Help, I need somebody,
Help, not just anybody,
Help, you know I need someone, help.

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won’t you please, please help me?

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways,
My independence seems to vanish in the haze.
But every now and then I feel so insecure,
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won’t you please, please help me.

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won’t you please, please help me, help me, help me, oh.

Our friends, the Beatles, were on to something. No, they weren’t talking about any form of deity, but they recognized that we cannot do things on our own. “I need somebody, not just anybody.” “I never needed anybody’s help in any way. But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured, now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.” “Help me get my feet back on the ground, won’t you please, please help me?” How often have we cried out in a similar fashion? It may be a cry to a loved one or maybe, just maybe, to our God in heaven. Tonight we are going to look at what it means to live in God’s help through the lens of a Song of Ascents of David: Psalm 124. Please follow along with me, the New American Standard is reprinted for your convenience on the back of the handout.

Psalm 124
A Song of Ascents, of David.

1 “Had it not been the Lord who was on our side,”
Let Israel now say,
2 “Had it not been the Lord who was on our side
When men rose up against us,
3 Then they would have swallowed us alive,
When their anger was kindled against us;
4 Then the waters would have engulfed us,
The stream would have swept over our soul;
5 Then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.”

6 Blessed be the Lord,
Who has not given us to be torn by their teeth.
7 Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper;
The snare is broken and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the name of the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.

Let’s pray. God I pray that you would speak to us tonight. Speak life to us through this passage, help us to prayerfully listen to your Word. Amen.

As stated at the beginning of the reading, this is one of the 15 songs of ascent. My apologies to Jim if I duplicate any of what he said last week. The Hebrew title sir hamma’alot ledavid (שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲלֹ֗ות לְדָ֫וִ֥ד): means a song of the ascents of David. There are a number of views regarding what it means to be a song of the ascents. One view is that the songs were sung as a people approaching the temple of Yhvh. Another view that delves more into the content and character of the 15 psalms suggests that these songs were sung as pilgrimage songs. One of the reasons I picked this psalm is Eugene Peterson’s book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction which has been a very formative book for my faith. There he walks through each of the songs of the ascents. In this book he suggests that this pilgrim motif makes much sense. Peterson says this:

These fifteen psalms were likely sung, possibly in sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals. Topographically Jerusalem was the highest city in Palestine, and so all who traveled there spent much of their time ascending. But the ascent was not only literal, it was also a metaphor: the trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God, an existence that advanced from one level to another in developing maturity.

Had enough school for the night? I imagine so. But I want you to keep this context in your minds: the pilgrim making his (or her) ascent. Try to imagine the various emotions that would be going through your head as the pilgrim. A cry for help should be easy to imagine.

Now that we have all this background stuff out of the way, let’s dig in to the passage. As we walk through this chapter I want you to particularly be aware of three crucial points: Firstly, God is on our side! Secondly, dire circumstances can be honestly dealt with. Thirdly, the Lord is our Help in our circumstances, as dire as they may be. The first two point to the third and help us to live in God’s help.

Our first main point arises out of the first two verses. They are interesting in that there is repetition of nearly the entire verse: “’Had it not been the Lord who was on our side’ Let Israel now say, ‘Had it not been the Lord who was on our side…’” In a chapter of eight verses, repetition like that would have to be pretty important. David goes on to say “Had it not been the Lord who was on our side when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive!” This is looking back at a pretty dire situation, that is, death! How do we respond in dire situations? Do we respond differently in hindsight? David is looking back here, “let Israel say, Had it not been for the Lord who was on our side…” I think this repetition emulates the repetition that would have taken place while they were actually experiencing the dire circumstance. When I am in a difficult situation I know that I often don’t think completely straight so I may repeat a simple prayer or cry over and over. “God end this! God end this!” or “God protect me! God protect me!” “Help Lord, Help!” Looking back on the situation, being on this side of the trauma, we can now say “God pulled me through! God is on my side!” This is David’s acknowledgement that God is in control. Another thing to note of this initial repetition is that this is not the smiley, happy affirmation that “yeah, God is for me!” It can be that, but it also comes from a deeper desire to affirm that God does, indeed, pull is through dire circumstances. I don’t want to take this too lightly because on first reading, many people cannot affirm that God is on their side because they are in too much pain or are going through some difficulty. In that situation, we need to hear it all the more. This affirmation is not a blind one that wants to mask any sort of pain someone is going through, in fact, it is quite the opposite, it should be seen as encouragement that God will pull us through to the other side where we can, now from a much more meaningful place, say that the Lord is on our side.

Verses three through five help us with our second crucial point: how do we deal with dire circumstances? Moving on from the opening David now explains how dire the situation was. Verse three: “Then they would have swallowed us alive, when their anger was kindled against us.” Verse four, “then the waters would have engulfed us, the stream would have swept over our soul.” And then more repetition in verse five: “then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.” This situation is much more dire even than death, it is complete annihilation, utter destruction! Again, the repetition should inform us of the importance and severity of this statement. Their very souls were at risk. Peterson notes that “the psalms are great poetry and have lasted not because they appeal to our fantasies and our wishes but because they are confirmed in the intensities of honest and hazardous living.” These middle verses are just that, they honestly convey the dangers of life. David and the people of Israel had been through much and can look back on it now for what it was: perilous times that could have been cut short had the Lord not been on their side. There is no need, nor desire on David’s part to hide these things from Israel or God. They knew full well what they had been through and they were to be free to express those things to God. Underlying these verses, surely Israel was crying out for God’s help. The fear of annihilation is no small thing. What better time to cry out for help? Regardless of the magnitude, we have all been through these types of trials where we have to cry out in honesty and in search of God’s help. It is the hope that we can arrive at the same place as David: affirming what atrocities could happened had it not been for God. These middle verses are directly linked to the affirmation in the first section and to the climax that is realized in our next section.

I can think of a time in my life where I have experienced the full range of this psalm. The summer before my freshmen year of high school when I was 15, I was working at a retail store where my mom was manager. One day my mom had gone home because my dad wasn’t feeling well. While I was one my lunch break, one of the pastors from my church showed up, came in, closed the door and told me that my dad had suffered a heart attack and died. This was, obviously, a huge blow. [Pause] Now I find myself in a similar position as David – looking back to this difficult moment. My initial response was, as I suggested before, simple repetition that also expressed an honest cry out for help. “Why God? Why?” “How could you let this happen? How could you let this happen?” In that moment I could not see that God was for me. But now with the benefit of hindsight, I can affirm that God was on my side. I wish I had known it at the time, that message was something that I really needed to hear as I was going through that journey. As in this middle section, I had to cry out in honesty to God and I can now look back and see how things could have gone if God was not my help. I wasn’t facing annihilation like Israel was, but I could have rejected Him, or my family, or become jaded and removed myself from society. Another thing to point out here is that not everyone will recognize that God has pulled them through. What about those of us the do reject God? Both the Old and New Testaments should be a witness to us that rejection is a common response but that God will still gladly accept our return to him. If you, or a loved one, is in doubt because of hardship, has rejected God, or turned your back, continue to cry out, continue to tell God what you are going through. This honest cry for help leads to the affirmation that arises in the conclusion to the psalm that God is our Help and will bring us through as our deliverer.

The affirmation of the magnitude and severity of their, and our, circumstances is followed by verses six through eight with the natural response to deliverance. The change in tone is quite stark as we move to our third crucial point. From the dire circumstances they were in and appropriate place to cry out for help, there is a move to blessing the Lord who pulled them out by his help. Verse six says “Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us to be torn by their teeth.” We don’t just see empty praise, but praise that follows from all that we have seen thus far along. This verse serves as an answer to that which would have happened in verse three – that is, instead of being swallowed alive, we were not given over. Then verse seven seems to respond to both verses four and five: “Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper; The snare is broken and we have escaped.” Here our soul is saved as an escaped bird compared to verses four and five where waters would have sweep over our soul. Not only were the Israelites not annihilated, but they are free as if being released from a trap. The comparisons of verses six and seven with three through five serve to point to how those things are accomplished, namely in the climax of the passage. The way that Israel escaped, the way the snare was broken, the way our souls were set free, verse eight: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” This is the personal God whose mere name gives Israel the help it needs. Yhvh helps. Yhvh is on their side! Yhvh protects and brings Israel through pain and strife. When we say “Help, I need somebody, not just anybody” we, like Israel are calling out to the God that has given his help. We look to Psalm 124 as one of encouragement. We no longer have to say “why does this happen to me?” but “it did happen to them and God was their help.” We are to use this model in our walk. God brought Israel through their struggles by His help. The trials we go through will shape us, but our experience of God’s help is what gets us through and should ultimately inform who we are.

Looking back to our three crucial points, I want to reflect on them through the eyes of a pilgrim. We can, I think easily, think of ourselves as pilgrims on the metaphorical ascent acted out in a life lived upward toward God. First, God is on our side. As a pilgrim, this is a two fold encouragement: both to act in boldness because God is on our side and will support us and to persist through any struggle, also because God is on our side and will carry us through. The road is often rocky for the pilgrim, and it might often be difficult to believe that God is for us, but we must be encouraged to persevere. Secondly, the rocky path that we encounter as a pilgrim can be dealt with honestly with each other and with God. Pilgrims, especially pilgrims on the path to Jerusalem, are not alone and will necessarily share their struggles. God can hear our struggles, so we should share them with Him as we walk the path. Thirdly, we are able to walk the path and traverse any rocky areas because the Lord is our Help. We cannot survive on our own and, thanks be to God, He has graciously become the help we need. The pilgrim must live in God’s help, if we don’t the results could be disastrous. And why would we want to live apart from God’s help anyway? Are you living in God’s help?

This song of ascents and the three points we can take from it should shape our pilgrim walk with God. So we can cry out in help through our rocky road and know that God, the God that created heaven and earth, will carry us through because his great name is our help. As we go tonight, live in God’s help and in the fullness of what that entails. Let us pray.

Father God you are our help. We have failed you and rejected you and yet you are still on our side, you are for us. Open our eyes God to the Help that you are. Your strong name is our help! God, creator of heaven and earth and the one who walks along side us, we thank you for your abundant gifts from your loving grace. In Christ’s name, Amen.

  1. March 26th, 2006 at 04:29 | #1

    Your analysis reminds me of the New Testament account of blind Bartemaues (sp?). He cried out “Jesus son of David have mercy on me!” We do not deserve His grace and mercy yet He gives them to us freely if we but ask. But we must ask to receive. And the disciples wanted to quiet the man! Praise God that Jesus stopped to take mercy on the man and restore his sight. How many of us are blind to the workings of God in our lives, trying to do everything on our own. Jesus, Lord, have mercy on me!

  2. Mom
    March 26th, 2006 at 22:09 | #2

    Very nice Matt. Robyn in her message this morning quoted Ann Lamont in “Treveling Mercies” as saying her two most used prayers were, “help, help, help” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.”

  3. March 27th, 2006 at 12:34 | #3

    Amen to that Randy!

    Sometimes the most basic prayers can convey the most honesty.

  4. Jackie Brown
    January 2nd, 2007 at 07:15 | #4

    Thank you for sharing your message on Psalm 124. I am a minister and God has led me to prepare a sermon on this passage of scripture. I too experienced the loss of the life of a loved one, my son. If it had not been for the Lord, I don’t know what would have happened to me.

  5. January 2nd, 2007 at 22:43 | #5

    Thank Jackie. Amen indeed. Pretty amazing how God will work in our lives in unexpected ways. I hope your sermon goes well. Blessings!

  6. September 26th, 2009 at 20:30 | #6

    Landed on your sermon. Thanks. Exactly the ideas and condensed development I was looking for on Psalm 124 to give more substance to my own thoughts. appreciate being able to integrate them into my short homily for sunday morning’s service at our Personal Care Home, Luther Home. His Grace and Peace be with you.

  1. March 30th, 2006 at 01:08 | #1

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